To a bookworm, nothing's sweeter than an empty room, a comfy chair and a teastained volume of Dickens. But for some printed-word addicts, talking about books runs a close second to reading them--and it's a lot more sociable.
Take certain Saturdays at the Sherman Oaks Branch Library when the Masterworks of Literature Book Discussions are in session. Even before the 2:30 p.m. meeting time, people of all descriptions--young, mature, casual, cool, scholarly--begin to squeeze around a wooden table with their paperbacks of "Swann's Way" or "Sons and Lovers" or, recently, Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha." Some bring notes and read them as they wait. Others flip through dog-eared pages, reminding themselves of favorite passages and even reading them aloud, irrepressibly, to their neighbors.
By the time Diane Gordon, the group's founder and leader, arrives and introduces the day's book, they're off and running.
"If you don't know anything about religion, this book will confuse you even more," says Virginia Jacobs, a longtime member, about "Siddhartha." "But I applaud Hesse's style--and his brevity."
Michael Stern, another group veteran, agrees. "I was moved by the writing," he reports. "The book reads almost like a poem, full of simplicity and grace."
Gordon, a Sherman Oaks librarian for the young adult department who started the group seven years ago, runs it partly like a class, partly like a casual confab among friends. She starts by having participants introduce themselves and, during the next hour and a half, she asks them by name for their opinions as they sift through points of plot, characterization, theme and conflict. Along the way, digressions into Emersonian philosophy, psychoanalysis and modern morality are not uncommon.
"Talking about literature develops people's creativity and imagination," Gordon says. "It gets them out of themselves and their daily concerns and gives them ideas for new ways of approaching life."
It also enriches the experience of reading, says Karen Johns, a psychiatric nurse and psychology student who travels from West Los Angeles to join the group. "These discussions validate my own thoughts and feelings, but also expand them. People always have other interpretations."
Gordon's definition of masterworks takes in novels, poetry and plays written before 1950, a cut-off, she explains, that ensures a work has "stood the test of time."
Ranging from Homer to Chaucer to Steinbeck, the material is chosen and voted on by the group, with a little help from Gordon.
"I try to get them to choose work in different genres--fantasy, mystery--as well as different formats," she acknowledges.
The result is a list that would delight many an English teacher, not to mention the veteran bookworm interested in expanding his or her horizons. On tap for Saturday's meeting is "David Copperfield" by Dickens, which will be followed June 12 by Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." July 10, the group will talk about "The Tale of Genji" by Shikibu Murasaki; Aug. 14, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry; Sept. 11, Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure"; Oct. 9, Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew"; Nov. 13, John Galsworthy's "The Forsyte Saga"; Dec. 11, Somerset Maugham's "Cakes and Ale," and Jan. 8, Eugene O'Neill's "Strange Interlude."
"I read things here I wouldn't read on my own," says Gloria Jacobs, admitting to a personal taste for popular mysteries.
Virginia Jacobs (no relation) has no such affection for the contemporary. "To me," she says, "there's a great similarity in books being written today. They all sound alike."
She singles out Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," two of the group's past selections, for their distinctive style and lasting power.
"Things don't change," she says. "With great books, the stories they tell, the issues they deal with--we've got the same conditions now."
Certain of the group's choices, Gordon says, attract specialized audiences.
When "The Hobbit" was on the calendar, members of a local Tolkien society arrived in force. Those from a Sherlock Holmes society joined in for a discussion of an A. Conan Doyle mystery.
But what longtime masterworks devotees have in common, as Gordon sees it, is "curiosity about the world and what's in it. They love good style and turns of phrase. They appreciate writing they can taste and feel and smell."
And many would likely endorse the view of fellow group member Hilda Harte: "Every door in the world is opened up by reading."
WHERE AND WHEN
What: Masterworks of Literature Book Discussions.
Location: Sherman Oaks Branch of the L. A. Public Library, 14245 Moorpark St., Sherman Oaks.
Hours: 2:30 p.m. second Saturday of each month.
Call: (818) 981-7851.
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